Building a Cost Effective Workstation for SOLIDWORKS

Last Updated on by DesignPoint Team

We receive a few calls every month looking for recommendations from users and CAD administrators building or buying new PCs to run SOLIDWORKS. Depending on your primary workflow, the PC requirements for SOLIDWORKS can vary greatly. Let’s break out the main tasks in SOLIDWORKS and see how they relate to PC hardware, then we will focus on building a BALANCED system for SOLIDWORKS that doesn’t break the bank.

Let’s take a look at several operations that a standard SOLIDWORKS user would put their machine through each day. Well discuss what each task is taxing in terms of your computer hardware and look at what hardware can improve performance. Remember, it doesn’t matter how powerful certain individual components are, your machine is only as powerful as its weakest link.

SOLIDWORKS

  1. SOLIDWORKS Application Launch, Part open, Assembly open, and Drawing open:

    All these actions load data from somewhere to your CPU and Memory (RAM). That somewhere should be a solid-state disc drive (SSD) for the best performance. Unfortunately, it is not always the case even if you have an SSD on your PC. Many companies like to house their engineering data on a protected network server. Our experience with these servers is that they are usually generations behind current PC hardware. Your fast, new PC is still handicapped because your data is on a 2005 server, using 2004 HDDs, and has to send that data across several hundred feet of CAT5 cable and several routers, switches, etc.

    a. Ensure SOLIDWORKS is installed on your SSD drive (when options)
    b. Ensure you are working on files actually stored on your SSD instead of a network drive
    c. Use SOLIDWORKS PDM to get the best performance and file security

  2. Part modeling:

    The feature tree is serial in nature and therefore A SINGLE CPU core must start at the top and work its way down the tree. Your PC cannot split this task up among different cores (i.e. multi-threaded) to have one core start at the top and the other half-way down working in parallel. The 2nd core just wouldn’t know what to build upon since the first core has not finished its work. This is a single threaded PC load so single core processor frequency (measured in GHz) is key here. Turbo boost (by Intel) is a great piece of technology because it helps overclock a single core to a higher frequency (GHz) in single threaded loads.

    a. Single core CPU frequency is key here. The higher the core frequency, the faster (in theory) that given part model will rebuild.
    b. Overclocking a CPU (beyond Turbo Boost) will help and can generally net 20-30% more performance in part rebuild times. There are many great guides available on the internet to DIY. You are assuming a risk (for a tangible reward) when you overclock your CPU and be aware that you are trading reliability for performance. You can purchase pre-overclocked PCs from many PC builders if you are not familiar with this concept or willing to learn about it but desire the best performance possible. CPU cooling is critical if you go this route.

  3. Assemblies:

    Assemblies behave quite a bit like parts with respect to CPU load with two caveats. Your PC must have enough RAM to load all of the parts into memory without taxing the Virtual Memory of your machine. The other (usually overlooked) area is how fast a PC can load your parts from your storage location into RAM. SSDs completely outclass HDDs in this area by an order of magnitude. Also note that if you are still loading your files from a networked drive, it doesn’t really matter how fast your HDD is. You are effectively using the slowest storage possible with that setup. Sadly, networked drives are almost always on HDD drive, based servers, and you need to transfer the data from those slow HDD across a slow network with limited bandwidth. SOLIDWORKS PDM helps eliminate this issue to have the best of both worlds; fast user performance of local files with secure sharing capabilities of a network.

  4. Drawings:

    This is where we start to see SOLIDWORKS dip into consistent multi-threaded loads. SOLIDWORKS assigns a core to each drawing view in your active drawing sheet. Since most sheets have four views or greater, a quad core CPU handles drawing loads all at once, whereas a single core would have to do each view serially.

  5. Simulation, Flow Simulation, Photoview360, SOLIDWORKS Plastics:

    These items generally scale linearly with the number of cores in a system up to about 8 cores. If you are using either of these features occasionally, you need multiple cores in your CPU. A quad core CPU is 2x as fast as an equal dual core CPU in these applications. You will quickly see a return on investment because there is a minimum price premium from quad core to dual core CPUs. Intel’s hyper threading doubles the number of effective cores giving a 2X boost compared to a similar CPU without it. I7 CPUs are king for these tasks because they have at least 4 cores x 2 (hyper threading) = 8 cores.

Computer Components

  1. CPU

    We start here because it is the heart of a PC and the most important item to design a system around. There is no other single component that will affect more SOLIDWORKSs tasks than the CPU. Our recommendation is a quad core CPU with Hyper-threading and turbo boost. The Intel Core i7 range fits this bill perfectly. While people will tell you that SOLIDWORKS doesn’t use multiple cores that often, you (as a PC user) do most of the time. We constantly have PDFs, email, 2D CAD, and company specific programs running while using SOLIDWORKS. Users need the ability to work in multiple programs at the same time without overly stressing their PC.

  2. Storage

    SSDs are probably the biggest performance impact you can have on an old PC, but there is a slight price premium to be paid in GB/$ compared to traditional magnetic HDDs. They are an order of magnitude faster than any HDD. Every piece of information you work with is stored on your hard drive and your new, fast PC can quickly be bottle-necked by poor HDD performance from a traditional mechanical drive. Once you use a SSD based PC, you will never go back to a HDD system. You will be amazed at how much faster Windows, MS Office, and SOLIDWORKS boot up too. Remember that you aren’t productive when waiting for your programs to launch.

  3. Video Card

    The video card is responsible for displaying your 3D models on the screen. It does NOT affect rebuild times, processing, or anything other than the refresh rate of the 3D graphics on screen in frames per second (FPS) when you rotate or zoom a model. When the video card is being taxed, rotating a model becomes choppy (lower FPS) as the card is not fast enough to process what geometry should be shown or hidden as the view changes. Most monitors can display 60 FPS max (some higher end monitors are now 144hz) so this is the ceiling with respect to GPU performance. If you are at this ceiling with a low to mid-range card, a high-end card will offer no noticeable improvement because your monitor is the FPS bottleneck, not the card. A higher end card may allow you increase the model detail (Realview, anti-aliasing, tessellation level, edges shown, ambient occlusion, shadows, reflections, and/or transparency). FRAPs is a good program to monitor or display your FPS while using SOLIDWORKS. If you are looking to measure current video performance, FRAPS is a simple program to install that will display your FPS as you work inside SOLIDWORKS.

The main thing you need to remember is that there are 2 GPU manufactures (NVIDIA and AMD/ATI), 2 product lines for each manufacturer (GeForce and Quadro for NVidia: Radeon and FirePro for AMD). GeForce and Radeon cards are for 3D gaming while the Quadro and FirePro cards are for CAD. The CAD cards are much more expensive compared to their gaming equivalent. We DO NOT recommend buying high end workstation cards because the margin on these cards is outrageously not in your favor, and the technology advances at a high rate = poor investment. It is always a better value to upgrade more often with mid-range or entry level cards than to spend thousands / card on the high end. You can generally upgrade 2-3 times with a mid-range card and still be under the cost of a high-end card while having better average performance over that period. SOLIDWORKS also has many options that can reduce the graphical load on your system, helping you avoid poor graphical performance (and lessening the need for high end graphic cards). The hard fact is that GPUs just aren’t as CAD critical as they were 10 years ago.
– Real view – On/Off (affects shader load)
– Toggle transparencies Off (affects geometry load)
– Image Quality slider in Tools/Options/Document Properties/Image Quality(affects geometry load)

We do not recommend running SOLIDWORKS with a gaming card (GeForce or Radeon) as you can experience graphical display (quality) issues with these cards. The drivers are different for these cards and may not handle CAD programs accurately. The gaming card drivers have been shown to throttle the Open GL performance in SOLIDWORKS (We don’t like it either). A technically better gaming card will run SOLIDWORKS worse than a low-end CAD video card as a result. Obviously, this is not recommended by Design Point or SOLIDWORKS. We have run Nvidia gaming cards successfully, but your usability and performance will vary, and you must assume the risk yourself. Once again, we cannot support and do not recommend gaming graphics cards.

For a full listing of supported graphics cards, please see the SOLIDWORKS Video Card Testing page, at the SOLIDWORKS system requirements pages. Please make sure that your card and system configuration is listed.

Hardware Recommendations

HDD

  • Recommended: 256GB min (512GB recommended) Solid state disk drive (SSD) for OS and programs AND a conventional HDD for data. SSDs are fast, but not as secure, so ensure you back up your data frequently (as is always a good practice). If they fail, you lose all data contained on them unlike an HDD where most data can be salvaged. Ensure your data is protected in some manner.
  • Dont Buy: Conventional HDD as your only drive, or a RAID setup. These are painfully slow compared to SSDs. If you are building a new PC, don’t handicap the entire PC by the weakest link of a HDD.

CPU

  • Recommended: Intel i7 (all around best CPU/$, does everything well. High GHz for parts, 8 threads for multi-threaded loads). If you already have an i7 in your PC, there is not a lot of difference in the generations with respect to SOLIDWORKS.
    Budget minded: Intel i5 series (still 4 cores, but no hyper threading. 4 threads max).
    Mobile: M versions of desktop processors. i5 for budget, i7 recommended.
  • Avoid: Any server class CPU – Xeon, or dual CPUs. The benefits of these are not apparent when it comes to working in SOLIDWORKS. As a result, save yourself some money by avoiding these (Intel I3 Dual Core CPUs). These CPUs struggle in drawings with multiple views

RAM

  • Recommended: 32GB. RAM TYPE/SPEED IS UNIMPORTANT. It is very easy and cheap to add more if you need it. 32GB will most likely be enough for you. Ensure you buy good RAM from G-Skill, Muskin, or Corsair. Look for good reviews and nice heat spreaders to keep the chips cool.

Video Card

Our experience is that NVIDIA cards and drivers are, on average, more stable and reliable than AMD drivers in SOLIDWORKS. AMD however tends to offer slightly more performance/$ than NVIDIA in their cards. Drivers are constantly being updated so you are at their mercy regardless of how good the hardware is in your GPU card. As long as you understand this, you can make the best decision for yourself.

Please review the SOLIDWORKS Video Card Testing page before selecting a card. If you have any issues understanding this page, please contact DesignPoint’s tech support and we would be glad to assist you.

  • Desktop Recommendation:
    • Quadro – reliable
    • AMD FirePro – faster
  • Mobile Recommendation:
    • Quadro
  • Don’t Buy:
    • High end cards over $1K. They don’t add much to SOLIDWORKS performance to justify their cost. We recommend you upgrade a $400 GPU more often than spend $1000+ on a single high-end card. You will have better performance over time with this approach.
    • Best money is always spent on current generation cards because older cards become exposed to driver issues as their support erodes over time.

Operating System

  • Win 10×64 (64 bit enables OS to utilize more than 4GB RAM, 32 bit OS is obsolete)

Case:

Here is an area we recommend spending money on (>$100-$150). Why? Cases last almost forever and are immune to the constant technology development that other components are. You also generally get what you pay for. At a high level, we recommend getting a case that is large enough to comfortably house all your components and has enough air flow to allow the heat to exit. A quality case makes servicing your PC much easier. Corsair, Antec, CoolerMaster, Thermaltake all make great quality cases.  Make sure you get something that has a lot of good reviews.

(Typical CPU fan for workstation using SOLIDWORKS)

CPU Cooling:

This is another area we recommend spending on similar to cases. A good CPU cooler will last many generations of PCs. I personally prefer water cooling compared to big air/air coolers. They cost more but tend to perform more consistently over time. Big, heavy air/air coolers hang off the CPU and over time can cause stability issues as a small air gap develops between them and the CPU. We’d rather you spend an extra $50 and get a $100 water/air cooler that performs better over time, not just for 1 year until it is reseated like a big air/air cooler. Any dual 120mm fan radiator cooler works great.

Power Supply:

These are often overlooked but are critical to a stable system. They provide your CPU & components stable voltage and power to operate. Your PC will only be as stable as the voltage of the electricity powering it. Please do not identify this as an area to pinch pennies if building a PC yourself. The blue screens will remind you of the money you saved later. Quality components should last users through 2-3 complete system upgrades. Expect to spend $80-$150 on a >600w PSU. 750W-800W recommended size, 600Wmin. Trusted PSU brands are below:

  • Corsair
  • Silverstone
  • Seasonic
  • Antec

I hope you found this breakdown of SOLIDWORKS Performance useful. It’s important to understand that SOLIDWORKS is a very advanced software and make the appropriate considerations for it. Taking the time to understand a CAD operation and invest in the correct hardware will prevent headaches and bottlenecks later down the line.

If you have any questions or comments, please feel free to reach out and we would love to talk this over with you. Thanks for reading.

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